Post-classical history

Chapter Seven


Questions of Authority

Between 1135 and 1160, Peter Abelard shows the power of Aristotelian logic, and systematic theology is born

SOMETIME AROUND 1135, the theologian Peter Abelard put the final touches on his latest project: the Theologia Scholarium, a treatise on the nature of God.

He had been polishing and revising the Theologia for fourteen years, ever since the first version of the book had been condemned as dangerous error. Back then, Abelard had been forced by a church council in Soissons to throw his book into a bonfire with his own hands. Now he hoped to defend his orthodoxy.

Instead, he would find himself facing yet another church council; and this time, the punishment would be more extreme.

For over forty years, Abelard had lived and breathed language. He had spent his teens studying the works of Aristotle in Paris and sharpening his skill with words: “I preferred the weapons of dialectic to all other teachings of philosophy,” Abelard wrote, of his own early years, “and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war.” In 1102, still only in his early twenties, he set up his own school in the French town of Melun. He taught and wrote, debated and argued; and his fame as a master of logic grew. By 1114, he had become master of the cathedral school at Notre Dame, the most prestigious in Western Francia.1

Only one thing had ever distracted Peter Abelard from words: Heloise, the beautiful niece of the Parisian priest Fulbert. In a calculated act of seduction, Abelard rented a room from Heloise’s uncle and offered to tutor Heloise in order to work off his rent. “And so, with our lessons as a pretext,” he tells us, “we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired. . . . My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages . . . [and] our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried.”2

The inevitable happened; Heloise became pregnant, and Abelard took her to stay with his sister in Brittany until the baby was born.

Fulbert, who up until then had been remarkably blind to the affair, flew into a rage. Abelard apologized, groveled, reassured, and generally did his best to make amends to his powerful landlord, but the most straightforward solution—marriage—was not on the cards. The master of a cathedral school was, by definition, a churchman; celibacy was increasingly the rule for churchmen, and marriage would cut Abelard’s career off at the roots.

Unable to appease the powerful Fulbert, Abelard finally proposed a solution. He would marry Heloise, but the marriage would remain secret so that his prospects at the school would not be blighted; Heloise would come back to her home in Paris, and Abelard would find lodging elsewhere. Fulbert agreed, but when Heloise—leaving her baby son in the care of Abelard’s family—returned to live in her uncle’s house, Fulbert made her life a misery. “In his exasperation,” Abelard records, “Fulbert heaped abuse on her. . . . As soon as I discovered this I removed her to a convent of nuns . . . near Paris.”

The convent was a way station, a place for Heloise to remain safe while Abelard could figure out his next move; but convents were the traditional refuge of wives whose husbands had repudiated them, and Fulbert used the move as an excuse to take revenge. He sent hired thugs to Abelard’s lodgings in the middle of the night. They pinned the schoolmaster down, and castrated him. “Next morning,” Abelard writes, “the whole city gathered before my house, and . . . tormented me with their unbearable weeping and wailing.”3

Probably the real crowd was smaller than in Abelard’s recollections, but he was a popular teacher, and the attack was a nine-day wonder. When the fuss had died down, both Abelard and Heloise entered monastic orders, he in the abbey of St. Denis near Paris, she taking orders at the convent of Argenteuil, some twenty-five miles away. Over the next two decades they saw each other perhaps twice; but they wrote letters constantly, their marriage held together only by words.

At St. Denis, Abelard continued to study and teach, applying Greek logic to the doctrines of the Church. The first version of his Theologia argued that Plato’s philosophy of a “world soul” was actually a reference to the Holy Spirit; that through logic, any man could grasp the essence of the Trinity; that scripture was involucrum, inherently difficult and figurative, “fruitfully obscure” in a way that forced readers to use reason and dialectic as they wrestled with the meaning.4

None of this was intended to destroy the faith. Like Anselm, Peter Abelard believed that truth would withstand Aristotle’s methods. But this alarmed his more traditionally minded brethren. When they accused him of endangering the doctrines of the Church, he offered to explain why his conclusions were true: “We take no account of rational explanation,” one opponent retorted, “nor of your interpretation in such matters; we recognize only the words of authority.”5


7.1 Peter Abelard’s France

In 1121, a church council at Soissons, attended by a papal legate, ordered Abelard to throw his Theologia into the fire. He obeyed, but he did not change his views on the value of reason and logic. For the next twenty years, Abelard wrote and taught, defending his orthodoxy even while he criticized the church’s reliance on too-simple truth. He revised the Theologia twice, coming up with its final form in 1135; he assembled a whole collection of quotations from the church fathers that contradicted each other into a work called Sic et Non (Yes and No); he wrote a series of dialogues about ethics between a Christian, a Jew, and a character called the Ancient Philosopher; the Collationes, in which the Ancient Philosopher shows a clear understanding of the Highest Good—despite having only natural law to guide him.6

He was often accused of heterodoxy, potentially dangerous departures from orthodox, accepted understandings of the Christian faith. At least once, he was briefly imprisoned. But the help of powerful patrons, and the enthusiasm of his many students, kept him from out-and-out condemnation by the Church—until 1141, when the revision of the Theologia drew the attention of none other than Bernard of Clairvaux: venerable in character, conspicuous for learning, evangelist for the Second Crusade.

The two men were polar opposites: Abelard determined to bring faith and logic together, Bernard holding the authority of the Church above all. “He had an abhorrence of teachers who put their trust in worldly wisdom and clung too much to human argument,” Otto of Freising explains. When, in 1140, a local monk sent Bernard a letter highlighting Abelard’s most recent doctrinal explorations, Bernard agreed that the matter required investigation.7

He asked Abelard to come and explain himself; Abelard instead appealed to the Bishop of Sens, and then to the pope. Probably he believed that his own skill in argumentation would help him to triumph. But it was exactly this skill that frightened his traditionalist opponents: “Peter Abelard,” wrote Bernard, in his own appeal to the pope, “believes he can comprehend by human reason all that is God.”8

To give Abelard a pass was to accept the categories of Aristotle; and accepting Aristotelian thought might well throw into doubt the entire authority structure of the Christian church. In 1141, the papal court agreed with Bernard. Abelard was to be imprisoned and condemned to perpetual silence. The sentence doomed him to pass the rest of his life without words: confined in a monastery, forbidden to speak, making his wants known only with signs.

In the eyes of his followers, the silencing of Abelard was a tacit acknowledgement that Aristotelian thought was both powerful and true. “The high priests and Pharisees convened an assembly,” wrote his student Berengar of Poitiers, using a New Testament metaphor for Bernard and the papal court, “and said: What should we do, since this man speaks of many wonderful things? If we let him go on like this, all will believe him.” But for Bernard of Clairvaux, authority had been properly reasserted; the old truths preserved, the old verities reaffirmed.9

The penalty was never actually enforced. Abelard, who had been suffering already from the illness that would kill him, took shelter at the monastery of Cluny and was in the middle of writing a lengthy self-defense when he died. The abbot of Cluny, known as Peter the Venerable, exercised the authority given to him “in virtue of [his] office” and declared Abelard absolved of all his sins. He sent Abelard’s coffin to Heloise, now abbess of the Paraclete convent.

She buried him there; and when she also died, some twenty years later, she was buried beside him.10

BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX had no idea that he was fighting a rearguard action.

Already, at the cathedral school of Chartres, the accomplished master Bernard of Chartres was at the height of his teaching career, making his students thoroughly familiar with the works of Plato and Aristotle as foundation for their ongoing education in Christian doctrine. “Bernard would bend every effort to bring his students to imitate [the poets and orators] they were hearing,” writes John of Salisbury, who studied at Chartres. “In some cases he would rely on exhortation, in others . . . flogging. . . . [He] used to compare us to puny dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”11

In Italy, a legal scholar named Gratian was already applying logic to the Church’s own proceeedings. He was creating a vast collection of Church law, putting together ecclesiastical pronouncements that contradicted each other, and then using dialectic to resolve the inconsistencies. His masterwork, the Concordance of Discordant Canons, became a core text of the Catholic church tradition (and remained part of Church law until 1918). But it was a triumph for ancient philosophy; useful though it was, the Concordance was a rationalization of spiritual decisions. It brought order by treating Church authority as a simple human system.12

And in Paris, the cleric Peter Lombard was already hard at work, lecturing and writing, developing a system of theology that would become his most famous book: the Sentences. Lombard, twenty years younger than Abelard, had come to the cathedral school of Reims in 1136, bearing a fulsome letter of recommendation from none other than Bernard of Clairvaux. By 1145, Peter Lombard was teaching at the school of Notre Dame in Paris; fifteen years later, the Sentences were being read in every cathedral school of note.13

“A most excellent work,” wrote Lombard’s contemporary Alberic of Trois Fontaines; “sane doctrine, commended by all,” commented the historian William of Tyre, who studied with Lombard for six years. The Sentences were the first major attempt by a Western theologian to link every Christian doctrine together into a coherent, logical whole. Using scripture and the Church fathers side by side, applying logic and dialectic to resolve contrary opinions, Peter Lombard created theological categories: Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology (the study of Christ, of salvation, of the Church, of the Last Things). The Sentences provided not just a scheme for organizing theology but also a methodology: discussion, debate, systematization.

This was undoubtedly not what Bernard of Clairvaux had intended for his protégé. “The faith of the pious believes,” Bernard had written, in his condemnation of Abelard. “It does not discuss.” But Lombard’s work had given birth to the new discipline of systematic theology. In the next century, the Sentences would become the classic text for students of divine matters, shaping an entire generation of the Church with the exact tools that Bernard had feared.14


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